In this presentation, I would like to examine the apparition of
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ICLA 2004 Congress, Hong Kong Panel #2, Postmodernism and Exile August 12, 2004 Angelic Apparitions on Stage and Screen John T. Dorsey Rikkyo University, Tokyo Japan In this presentation, I would like to examine the apparition of angels in late twentieth-century dramas and films in order to show how recycled, in this case secularized, images in such postmodern works are used, not to define and thereby limit the human condition, but to explore and expand it. Two representative works that will be discussed are Wim Wenders’s film Der Himmel über Berlin [Wings of Desire] (1987) and the American re-make or adaptation of this film, City of Angels (1998). Another central text in my discussion will be Tony Kushner’s two-part play Angels in America (1991/1993), which was recently made into a six-part film for television by Mike Nichols (2003). In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, angels are messengers from God, sent with guidance, tidings, orders, and warnings. In the late twentieth century, as both the end of the century and of the millennium approached and doom and disaster loomed, angels appeared with increasing frequency in popular songs, films, television programs, and plays. And the depictions of 2 angels ranged from the fundamentalist to the occult and back again. I intend to focus on the middle range here, and I have chosen to focus on plays and films because in these performing arts, the celestial figures are not abstract ideas but are made to appear before our eyes. In their postmodern, recycled incarnation, however, the angels are presented in a recognizably ironic manner—adorned, as it were, in theatrical and cinematic quotation marks—that undermines the viewers’ expectations of a traditional story of rescue or salvation, such as was common in Hollywood’s series of angel movies such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), and Heaven Only Knows (1947). Late twentieth-century angels have some task or bear some sort of message, but it chiefly serves to animate the plot, which in any event is not the main concern. It is the appearance of the angels and their behavior that serve to tease out various readings of what it means to be human. Although angels have traditionally been considered superior to human beings, these postmodern angels are depicted as inferior, and they are openly envious of the human condition. In this way, these angelic apparitions introduce a discourse of human possibilities, and the humans who come in contact with these immortals transcend their own sense of human limitations, most particularly in regard to widespread late twentieth concerns with personal and social closure—death and the end of the world. Let us begin with the appearance of the angels on a literal level—what do they look like? We recall that in Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles, a fallen angel, scorns the traditional horns and tail, and appears dressed as a traveling scholar. In the late twentieth-century, angels generally appear 3 very much like human beings, so much so, in fact, that directors are at pains to signify their differences. In Wings of Desire, Damiel and Cassiel could and actually do pass as humans on the streets of Berlin, except for their overcoats and monochromatic, sober-colored clothing. At the very outset of the film, Damiel’s wings inexplicably fade away, as he stands atop a steeple in Berlin, so that he and Cassiel are chiefly identified as angels by their special viewpoint—literally high above human concerns. And the camera assumes this angelic point of view, floating at high altitudes, looking down, zooming in and across the human terrain. But they are also identified by their monochromatic field of vision and by their “invisibility” to the “humans” they observe, although they can be seen by children and by members of the audience. In City of Angels, Seth, a character close to but not quite the angel of death, and his sidekick Cassiel dress like the other angels in dark or black, designer-styled clothing, again a hint of a monochromatic, black-and-white world that suggests limitations. They too are “invisible” or, rather, visible only to the dying, to spectators, or by their own will. In Los Angeles, their attire would not stand out unless they stood together in groups, as they do in the library scene and on the beach, and let themselves be seen. They too are drawn to high perches from which they look down on earthly doings in Los Angeles, literally the city of angels of course but, more importantly, home of Hollywood, their true place of origin. However, in Angels in America, the angel is a “woman,” although we are told that she is hermaphroditically equipped and apparently omni-sexual, and she appears in more traditional trappings—wings and flowing white 4 robe—so much so, that she is identifiable as a human creation recycled from art works and Christmas cards. Though announced and properly heralded, her sudden appearance from “above” is so spectacular and dramatic—she crashes through the ceiling of a New York apartment—that Prior Walter, the main character, identifies the mode of representation in one of the famous toss-away lines of the play, “Very Stephen Spielberg”: we hear a terrifying CRASH as something immense strikes earth; the whole building shudders and a part of the bedroom ceiling, lots of plaster and lathe and wiring, crashes to the floor. And then in a shower of unearthly white light, spreading great opalescent gray-silver wings, the Angel descends into the room and floats above the bed. (124) Thus the New York angel is presented in a playful, recognizably cinematic (Spielberg) mode. And we recall that in both Wings of Desire and City of Angels, angels are associated with actors and with directors—Wings in particular is dedicated to angelic directors such as François Truffaut and Yasujiro Ozu. In addition to cinematic angels, there are television star “former” angels, that is, angels who have chosen to become human: the English-speaking American Peter Falk from the “Columbo” series in the Berlin of Wings of Desire and Dennis Franz from “NYPD Blue” in City of Angels, both of them iconic television police detectives. With all these intertextual references in mind, which are, after all, something like the wires and stage machinery of performance, the important thing is that angels 5 physically appear onstage and onscreen—the spectator sees them, in spite of his or her doubts, in spite of the playful undermining of their existence in the works themselves. They appear as clearly as solidly before our eyes as the theatrical ghost in Hamlet and are therefore as real as any other fictional characters in the works. The angelic viewpoint in these works gradually shifts from the visual to the intellectual, but it is steadily focused on human activity, which in various senses positions them as spectators to a performance. The angels look down from above, but they also see without being seen, a viewpoint in many ways like that of the audience. Similarly, they hear what people say and even think, without being able to intervene directly. Again, this is very much like the privileged but limited position of the audience. Moreover, once we go beyond the physical senses, we learn that the angels are observers, not participants, and that they inhabit a stable world outside of time and place, as they watch the doings of human beings, which appear to them as a fascinating performance that draws them into it across the proscenium/screen barrier. In Wings of Desire, we are never really sure what Damiel and Cassiel are doing in Berlin—it has been observed that they seem out of place or displaced like other characters in films by Wenders.１ In the early stages of the screenplay by Peter Handke and Wim Wenders, they seem to have been exiled from heaven because of their sympathy for humankind. ２ In the finished film, they observe and sympathize and comfort, but we are never really given any reason for their being in Berlin, or anywhere on Earth for that matter. They appear in the skies over Berlin, observe and listen to 6 human behavior, and then come closer and closer until Damiel in this film and Cassiel in the sequel Im weiter Ferne, so nah! [Faraway, So Close] (1993) become human by falling from their elevated points of view, not as far as Satan and his fellow conspirators and not by compulsion, but crashing to the ground in Berlin by their own choice. In City of Angels, Seth has a better reason to be there—he is something like an angel of death, someone who gently accompanies dying people to their final unnamed destination. In this film as well, such words as “heaven” or “God” are conspicuously absent. Seth’s angelic tranquility in comforting the dying is shattered, however, by meeting a doctor who seems to regard him literally as an adversary, as the embodiment of death. From this point on, Seth falls in love with the doctor and with the terrestrial world, the Garden of Eden she represents, based on the secular scripture, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. And his viewpoint changes, until he falls and then tastes not the traditional before-the-fall apple but a post-fall pear. In a melodramatic ending, inspired by both Hemingway and Hollywood, Maggie, the doctor, dies, leaving the fallen angel in the earthly paradise. In Angels in America, there is much anticipation of the appearance of the angel, who does not make her spectacular entrance until the end of the first part of the drama. It is only in Part II that she delivers her message, which seems incomplete and illogical and which is rejected: humans must cease to change and wander because they have introduced too much uncertainty into the universe, as evidenced by the disappearance of God during the San Francisco earthquake at the beginning of the twentieth century. This may well be Kushner’s take on the many mystical responses 7 by Americans to the approaching millennium. And it may be why the angel, for all her power and majesty, seems rather feeble in comparison with the down to earth viewpoints represented by the main character Prior, the nurse Belize, and the Mormon mother Hannah, even though the latter believes in angels, and she in fact gives one of the more rational explanations for the appearance of angels: “He [Joseph Smith] had great need of understanding. Our Prophet. His desire made prayer. His prayer made an angel. The angel was real. I believe that” (235). “An angel is just a belief, with wings and arms that can carry you. It’s naught to be afraid of” (237). Thus, the movement here is subtler and more meta-theatrical—the angelic viewpoint is gradually transformed into the human by relinquishing the wings and robes of otherness devised by humans. What is clear in most works of the period is that the angels are fascinated and drawn to human life on earth. Although it is sometimes difficult to account for their presence on earth, it is clear that the angelic viewpoint is focused on human activity to the point where the superior view is revealed to be inferior, and the earthly view is embraced. Quite early in Wings of Desire, Damiel expresses his envy of human experience, not only of taste, touch, and smell, but also of feelings and of time. For some reason, he and Cassiel have been observing and recording their observations of random human behavior, and Damiel has become quite caught up in the show and expresses the wish to take part in it. In City of Angels, Seth always asks the newly dead what they liked most about life, and he seems to be charmed from the outset by their responses. Eventually, the charms of the earthly paradise seem to outweigh the music of the spheres, and Seth embraces 8 human life in the form of a woman. In Angels in America, it is not really clear why the angelic orders are interested in humans, or on another level, whether they exist, for in this work, Kushner has taken care to allow the theatrical strings to show by allowing for traditional “explanations” as dreams, fevered delusions, and even the magic of the theater. Still, granted the theatricality, the angel who appears before us seems extraordinarily attracted to humans, having sexual relations with both the homosexual main character and the matronly Mormon mother. The angels in heaven for some reason need humans to cooperate in a world that God has abandoned. But, as mentioned previously, the angels and their heaven are found wanting, and although they do not become human, the humans reject the opportunity of becoming like angels, and the angels return to their status as an image, embodied in the statue of Bethesda, the healing angel, in Central Park, New York. However, the earthly paradise is, in an oddly anti-pastoral mode, the metropolises of Berlin, Los Angeles, and New York, and each of these works takes its character from that of the city. Wenders’s Wings of Desire and its sequel Faraway, So Close, are respectively set in the divided Berlin of the cold war and the united Berlin of the European Community. There seems to be a discrepancy at first between the overheard woes of the everyday Berliners and the wonderful world of the senses so envied by the angels, but here as in other works, the point seems to be that people suffer because they do not realize they are living in paradise. The transposition of Wings of Desire to Los Angeles in City of Angels has the angels go out to the beach naturally. And life in Southern California generally seems much more 9 pleasant than that on either side of the Berlin Wall. Even death seems more pleasant, thanks in part to the ministrations of Seth, and one can only envy an angel sent on duty to the more pleasant and comfortable sectors of that city. Perhaps this setting is the most plausible for the postmodern recycling of the idea of heaven on earth. Finally, for all its problems, New York City appears very much as New Yorkers perceive it—the capital of the world—in Kushner’s Angels in America, although San Francisco, no small city itself, is praised from a distance as a mirror of paradise. People come from all over the country and the world to assimilate to New York’s multicultural, multi-sexual ambience, but perhaps the greatest pleasure afforded by the city is the intellectual pleasure of knowing, understanding, and expressing. The angel assigned to New York has to be ready for an argument. But after all, Berlin, Los Angeles, and New York are cities of cinema and theater, and these angels are more deeply grounded in postmodern aesthetics than in theology. Choosing the human amounts to exploring various aspects of the human, and if these three cities afford enviable sensual pleasures to angels, they provide intellectual pleasure, the consciousness of the earthly paradise, to artists and other fallen angels. １ Introduction: “Wim Wenders’s Cinema of Displacement” in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition, p. 9. ２ Roger Cook, “Angels, Fiction, and History in Berlin: Wings of Desire” in The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition, p. 165. 10 References: Cook, Roger F. and Gerd Gemünden, eds. The Cinema of Wim Wenders: Image, Narrative, and the Postmodern Condition. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1997. Geis, Deborah R. and Steven F. Kruger. Approaching the Millennium: Essays on Angels in America. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1997. Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1995. Nichols, Mike. Angels in America, 2003. Silberling, Brad. City of Angels, 1998. Wenders, Wim. Der Himmel über Berlin [Wings of Desire], 1987. ------. Im weiter Ferne, so nah! [Faraway, So Close], 1993.